How can “ordinary” pastors compete with the vast range of well-known and greatly gifted preachers who are just one mouse-click away from everyone in their congregation? I know this is a sore point for many discouraged pastors. They visit their flock and all they hear are comments about the latest Internet sermon by Pastor Faimus and Dr Bigname. The only sermons that people seem to get excited about are ones preached hundreds of miles away!

However, I want to remind pastors of a huge advantage they have over the “popular” preachers of our own day. That advantage is, simply, personal relationship.

I was reminded of this recently when I was asked which preachers I would choose to sit under for a year of teaching. As I reflected on this question, I realized that the men I would chose are the men I know best, both in Scotland and in Grand Rapids. They include Angus Smith, Allan Murray, Foppe VanderZwaag, Joel Beeke, Maarten Kuivenhoven, William Macleod, and Kenny Macdonald. Apart from one of them, you’ve probably never heard their names, have you?

Of course, I deeply appreciate and frequently benefit from the sermons of the well-known preachers of our day. But I don’t know them and they don’t know me. I don’t know their lives and characters, and they have no involvement in my life. We have no relationship. That significantly limits the long-term spiritual impact of their sermons.

But when I have a relationship with a preacher; when I know him and he knows me; when we have wept together and rejoiced together; when I know he loves me and prays for me, then there is an added dimension to his words. They may not be as impressive words, or as well-organized words, or as well-said words. But they are empathetic words, and so they are powerful words.

A recent study of the “placebo effect” by Harvard Medical School’s Ted Kaptchuk has demonstrated the power of empathetic doctor-patient relationships in medicine. 62% of patients receiving an intentionally fake treatment from friendly, empathetic doctors reported relief from their irritable bowel syndrome, compared with 44% of a group that got the same fake treatment from impersonal, businesslike doctors. “It’s amazing,” said Kaptchuk, “Connecting with the patient, rapport, empathy . . . that few extra minutes is not just icing on the cake. It has biology.”

Researchers say it’s unclear whether the health care system can harness the biological power of physician empathy. But preachers can harness the spiritual power of pastoral empathy. Maybe, instead of spending a further ten hours on perfecting your blockbuster sermon, you should spend ten hours visiting your flock. That could give your sermons new power in your hearer’s lives. And remember, though we are blessed to live in a time with wonderful conferences and 24/7 Internet sermons, God primarily saves and sanctifies sinners through long-term pastoral relationships in the local church.

And let’s encourage our pastors. Let’s tell them that we deeply appreciate their transparent integrity, their sincere empathy, and their sacrificial investment in our lives. Let’s value and cultivate our relationships with them. And let’s tell them how much we’ve enjoyed their sermons rather than everyone else’s!